TAMPA — Not all schedules are created equal.
Every team faces its own challenges, whether it’s a rough slate of road games or a series of tough opponents.
Following Thursday’s schedule release, we take a look at how those from the NFC South stack up.
Schedules are ranked from most difficult to least, according to opponents’ 2019 winning percentage.
Of course, given the parity throughout the league, that may not be the best way to determine the true strength of a schedule. Take the Bucs, for example: No opponent looks at them as a 7-9 team after their offseason additions. So, we will delve deeper into the challenges each team faces.
.525 opponents’ 2019 winning percentage (tied for fifth)
Not only do the Falcons now have the league’s ugliest uniforms, their season could get ugly in a hurry. They start the season with three playoff contenders in their first four games: a home opener against the Seahawks and road games at the Cowboys and Packers. In fact, only one of their first six opponents had a losing record in 2019, and that season-opening stretch includes road contests at some pretty tough venues (AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Lambeau Field, U.S. Bank stadium in Minneapolis). In fact, the schedule-makers didn’t do the Falcons any favors with their road schedule, which also includes games in Los Angeles against the Chargers and at Arrowhead Stadium against the Chiefs. Atlanta hasn’t had much luck against the AFC, going 2-10 against the conference the past three seasons. The Falcons will have a bye week to prepare for their first meeting with the Saints, a Week 11 contest at the Superdome, but then have to play New Orleans again two weeks later. They then draw the Bucs in two of their final three games of the season. And if Tom Brady is anything like his Patriots’ self, he will have the Bucs rounding into postseason form around that time.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
.502 opponents’ 2019 winning percentage (tied for 16th)
The schedule makers did the Bucs dirty last season by making them travel across the country twice and across the pond once in the season’s first eight games. Let’s not get lost in the hype of this year’s schedule — which includes a franchise-record five prime-time games — because the Bucs still have to travel for five of their first eight games, just like last season. That includes trips to Denver and Las Vegas. The first half ends with three straight night games, including back-to-back night games in Vegas on Sunday Night Football, followed by a trip to The Meadowlands to play the Giants the following Monday. The good thing is that of those first five road games, only one opponent — New Orleans — had a winning record last season (the other four combined for a .344 winning percentage). Still, it’s difficult to win games on the road in the NFL. But much like last season, the Bucs’ schedule gets friendlier in the second half. Brady won’t get a bye week until Week 13, his latest since 2001. But he won’t need that handwarmer seen in so many of those photoshopped pics of him in a Bucs uniform. After Nov. 15, the Bucs have just two road games, and both are in domes (Detroit and Atlanta). A Nov. 29 home game against the reigning Super Bowl champion Chiefs will be a good late-season measuring stick.
.500 opponents’ 2019 winning percentage (tied for 18th)
The Panthers, outscored by 130 points — third-worst in the league — last season, are rebuilding under first-year head coach Matt Rhule. They will get to know how tough the NFC South should be quickly, as five of their six division games will be among their first 10 contests. By then, they will have played the Bucs and Falcons twice. But check out this stretch: The Panthers play at New Orleans on Oct. 25 in Week 7, host the Falcons four days later on Thursday night, then travel to Kansas City the following week. That trio of games can make a team grow up quickly, as the Panthers will see. A road slate that includes not only a trip to Arrowhead Stadium, but also a mid-December trip to Green Bay also will test a young team. Carolina doesn’t even get its bye week until Week 13, and 13 of its 16 games are 1 p.m. kickoffs. The Panthers host the Saints in their final game. This is what happens when you’re the afterthought of the division.
New Orleans Saints
.490 opponents’ 2019 winning percentage (24th)
The Saints are still the cream of the NFC South until they get knocked off. And their early-season schedule shows that. After starting against the Bucs in the first of two Brady vs. Brees matchups, the Saints open up the Raiders’ new stadium in Las Vegas on Monday Night Football in Week 2, then play a Sunday night game against the Packers in another premier quarterback matchup, with Brees playing Aaron Rodgers. Five of the Saints’ six division games come after their Week 6 open date. Four of their final six games are on the road, but a Week 14 game at Philadelphia on Dec. 14 is the only one of the four against a team with a winning record last season. All in all, New Orleans’ schedule isn’t very intimidating on paper. But New Orleans faces some tough competition the final four weeks, with games against playoff teams in Philadelphia, Kansas City and Minnesota (though the latter two are at the Superdome). While the Saints’ schedule is tough early and late, they will play perhaps their two biggest competitors for the NFC title in back-to-back weeks: the Bucs in Tampa on Sunday Night Football on Nov. 8, then the defending NFC champion 49ers the following Sunday.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.